Jumble Sales of the apocalypse: Meeting an idol
Simon Jenkins meets an idol
I got into a bit of a tangle with worship recently. A friend who works on Stephen Fry’s QI (BBC Two) invited me to join the studio audience for a recording, and, in the green room afterwards, while I was grazing on Doritos, I was introduced without warning to one of the gods of comedy.
Imagine a deity who shaped Not the Nine O’Clock News, Spitting Image, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Blackadder, and you’re thinking of John Lloyd. He produced them all. Shaking his hand, I meant to offer a brief: “Hello, thanks for tonight’s show,” but, to my horror, found my mouth burbling a profuse hymn of praise for all he’d done o’er the years and how much better my life was because of his wondrous works. In my mental replay of the grim scene, the crowded green room falls silent, except for the sound of someone gagging in the corner.
I should have followed US humourist Garrison Keillor’s advice on how lowly consumers like me should approach the great and famous. No speeches, no pursuit, no physical contact, no trying to get the awesome one to read your bloated, unpublished manuscript. Just a brief: “Love your work. Means a lot to me,” and leave it at that. Worship should be understated because it’s just embarrassing all round if someone recites your praises at length with flowery grandiloquence.
Anyway, back home, I started thinking about it. I realised there’s an exception to the general rule because there’s someone who never tires or gets embarrassed about hearing their praises sung at length, preferably with thundering organ and choir accompaniment. And that is the Lord. Indeed, if the chorus of worship falters a little, then the Psalms kick in by insisting that every creature and every musical instrument get back to the job of praising his name. Psalm 150 even breaks into exclamation marks over it, which is a rarity in the Bible.
I’m not for a nanosecond disputing that God deserves the best kind of glory and adoration there is. It just seems curious that he loves it so much and that he gets highly vexed and jealous if worship goes to false gods such as Baal, Zeus or Liberace. I bet that if God has a TV programme he always sets to record, it’s Songs of Praise. It all seems highly uncool, and not at all modest or English of him.
I first noticed this when I watched the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail back in 1975. In a scene I couldn’t help warming to, despite being a keen teen believer, the clouds part and God, in a top-heavy crown, addresses King Arthur, who has fallen to his knees: “Don’t grovel,” says God testily: “If there’s one thing I can’t stand it’s people grovelling.”
My mind boggles when I hear preachers say there will be just one item on the schedule in heaven – worship for literally countless ages. I’m sure Charles Wesley was getting something important right when he put “lost in wonder love and praise” into one of his hymns, but hymns are pretty much history now. Instead, an eternity of worship conjures up teenage guitars, overheated lyrics, songs on endless repeat and the screen at the front displaying Dell’s “No input signal” message from the laptop. Then, I’m not so much lost as mislaid in worship.
I realise all this might be making a rather big hole in the middle of my faith. It’s a God-shaped hole, and not in a good way.
Maybe worship is like people who visit Niagara Falls and stand with their mouths hanging open as they watch that colossal curtain of water drop to the rocks below. They’re reduced to animal-like grunts of wonder. These days, of course, the default response to any shocking (or even mildly surprising) moment is a shrieked: “Oh my God!” – which kind of makes my point for me. Key “Niagara Falls OMG” into YouTube and you’ll see what I mean.
Or, maybe worship is like a person about to jump in front of the 7.15 to Paddington, but is saved from doing it by a timely rugby tackle from a fellow traveller. Years later, in their right minds, they can’t help saying thank you over and over to their saviour. Awe and gratitude, I’m sure, are the psychological heart of worship. But I still think it’s not very English when God seems to enjoy it so much.
This article was published in the July/August 2014 edition of Reform.